History of Knitted Fishing Ganseys

miniature doll
© F H Powell 2009

Fishing ganseys were once common sights in any seaport around the British Isles and North Sea coasts, but sadly many patterns were lost (along with the fishing fleets) in the early 20th Century. Commonly, patterns were not committed to paper and were passed on from generation to generation by observational learning.

Each region (and some towns) of the British Isles have distinctive patterning on the gansey. Within these patterns further unique village and family variations are so distinctive that if the fisherman was unlucky enough to be shipwrecked, his body when eventually washed ashore could be identified by the gansey allowing the fisherman’s corpse to be returned to his family for burial. (Although not for the squeamish, the idea was that the knitted gansey could survive better in the water than human remains and was often the only distinguishing feature remaining)

The earliest ganseys were completely hand made from local sheep’s wool and were often dyed with Indigo (although some of the Scottish fishing fleets preferred natural white or black). Most fishermen’s ganseys today are believed to be the descendants of early shirts, which were first knitted in the Channel Islands and exported during Tudor times.

These ganseys were knitted in the round working from the bottom up and down the sleeves from the shoulder. This lengthened the life of the garment, as when the cuffs of the sleeves wore out it was a fairly simple job to unpick and re-knit the damaged parts. The garments were knitted without seams, although underarm gussets could be added to give extra width. Fishermen often owned 3 gansey’s (one for sea, one for shore and one for best) as can often be seen in old photos.

Selection of knitted fishermans ganseys in 1:12th scale (from left Fife, Lerwick and Channel Islands):

miniature knitting
© F H Powell 2007

The areas across the chest and upper arms were often intricately patterned, this served two purposes: the main being to keep the fisherman warm, as the patterned area produced a thicker texture, the second gave the knitter chance to use local patterns. It was often customary to knit a ‘mistake’ into the pattern to distinguish one gansey from another, especially if there was more than one man in the family. Patterns related to the sea and boats such as ropes, pennants, sheets (sails), ladders, anchors and cables were the most favoured and still remain popular today.

To knit a full sized adult gansey usually takes about six weeks and they were always made by hand, even after the advent of machines. The knitting is made with 4-5 needles in the round using 3 or 5-ply worsted wool. The gansey’s were knitted very tightly to make them weatherproof and hopefully waterproof. Indigo dye was used as the dye did not run when the gansey got wet, Indigo as a dye was difficult to use as it is not soluble in water, when removed from the dye bath and dried the dye again becomes insoluble. (In very early days Indigo was obtained from Woad, which also has mothproofing characteristics – very useful when working with wool! Later Indigo was imported from India.)

To get the most benefit from the gansey it was worn next to the skin with no undergarment or shirt (again this made sense, as wool retains its insulating properties even when wet, whereas cotton doesn’t). However a silk scarf was sometimes worn at the neck to prevent chafing.

We have a selection of regional gansey patterns for you to knit for your dolls house men, whether they be an old fisherman or a modern man. Even if you live far from the sea, why not incorporate a little of our Islands heritage into your dolls house?